Part 3—The dead crowd out the living: Slavery is one of the less attractive inventions of our self-glorying species.
We humans! In endless ways, we're inclined to praise [and present] ourselves as "the rational [and moral] animal." Such presentations are hard to square with such commonplace accounts such as this:
Evidence of slavery predates written records, and has existed in many cultures. Slavery is rare among hunter-gatherer populations because it requires economic surpluses and a high population density to be viable. Thus,...slavery became widespread only with the invention of agriculture during the Neolithic Revolution about 11,000 years ago.And so on. In fairness to our own Homo sapiens, until that Neolithic Revolution, it seems we were doing quite well!
In the earliest known records, slavery is treated as an established institution. The Code of Hammurabi (c. 1760 BC), for example, prescribed death for anyone who helped a slave escape or who sheltered a fugitive. The Bible mentions slavery as an established institution.
Slavery was known in almost every ancient civilization and society including Sumer, Ancient Egypt, Ancient China, the Akkadian Empire, Assyria, Ancient India, Ancient Greece, Carolingian Europe, the Roman Empire, the Hebrew kingdoms of the ancient Levant, and the pre-Columbian civilizations of the Americas...
Slavery has been practiced all over the world? Just this year, we saw Professor Gates make that statement to one of his guests on his PBS program, Finding Your Roots. In context, the statement seemed to be treated as something everyone knew.
In this country, the institution formed the basis for the country's economy long before the country became a country. Destructive, punishing claims about "race" were invented as a moral basis for the wonderfully low-cost practice.
We would have thought that much of this history was already well known. Similarly, we would have thought that people knew that the lives of enslaved people on this continent were "no crystal stair."
Such matters have been explored in print. Among many others, we think of Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made, Professor Genovese's 1974 book, which won the Bancroft Prize for History.
Before that, we had Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America, 1619–1962, Lerone Bennett's well-known 1962 book.
It seems to us that everyone knows that innocent people suffered and died under the lash of this institution. (Along the way, America's enslaved population created one of the greatest ethical, religious and moral cultures in the whole of human history.)
It seems to us that everyone knows that innocents suffered and died. That doesn't mean that historians shouldn't possibly seek to add to our collection of knowledge. We will suggest that historians, and everyone else, should possibly stop ignoring the needs of the living in an ongoing, perhaps unattractive deference to the lives of the honored dead.
Consider what happened when Professor Miles spoke in Detroit last fall. She was appearing in a city where 48,000 living people, all of them young, attend what may be the most god-awful public school system in the entire country.
Tomorrow, we'll offer some horrible data. Today, we'll puzzle a bit about our society's balance of concern regarding the inconsequential living versus the honored dead.
You never heard a peep from corporate liberals about the 48,000. They're too busy keeping you entertained about one Donald J. Trump.
Such presentations are good for profits, salaries, careers. They also help define the actual mental and moral practices of our occasionally less than wholly impressive species.
Back to Professor Miles. As an historian, she has published a book about the enslaved people of early Detroit. Because she's an historian, there's no obvious reason why she shouldn't have done so.
When she threw the floor open to questions at a book event last fall, several questions, and several answers, dealt with the "emotional toll" exacted on the people who conduct such research. Indeed, the very first questioner, a good, decent person, said this as part of his question:
AUDIENCE MEMBER (10/6/17): First of all, let me thank you for the time and effort that you spent and put into this work...But in going over the material, and that would include your team, did it exact an emotional toll from you, and does it continue to?That was a perfectly decent question. For the full exchange, click here, move to the 35-minute mark.
Because I noticed, when you were talking about the women, I could see your eyes, and it made me wonder. And we should feel this way when we come across this information...
Did it exact— How much of an emotional toll did it exact from you?
Several questions, and several answers, dealt with the emotional toll on the professor and her graduate students. At the 52-minute mark, the professor somewhat oddly said that the toll had been so great that she and her students came "to feel that the river [the Detroit River] was really the only witness to this crime, the only witness still with us."
We were struck by the frequent self-reference as the professor described the search for these historical stories—stories which are, in fact, no more horrible than the many other horrible stories which have long been part of the historical record.
We were also struck by the small number of people involved in early Detroit.
How many honored dead is Professor Miles attempting to research? Yesterday, we showed you one remark which brought us up short as we watched the C-Span tape.
How many of the honored dead lived as enslaved people in Detroit? At one point, the professor said this:
MILES (10/6/17): In Detroit, the numbers were small. We're talking about 1300 people total, 2000 people total, in the early years. And so 85 enslaved people, 200 enslaved people, in the early years.Eighty-five, or perhaps 200, enslaved people? We thought again of the 48,000 who may be attending school, this very day, in the nation's most god-awful school system.
The professor was writhing about the lives of the honored dead. That said, similar stories have been told many times, and the numbers in Detroit were quite small.
What was Detroit's overall population in the years under review? According to the leading authority on Detroit, here are a few population numbers from its early days:
Total population, DetroitDetroit was rather small at this time. As for the state of Michigan, Michigan became a state in 1837. Here are early numbers for the Michigan Territory, which was officially formed in 1805:
Total population, Michigan TerritoryProfessor Miles is developing the history of a relatively small number of people. How many enslaved people lived in Detroit? This passage from the New York Times' review of the professor's (widely-praised) book provides a rough idea:
SOKOL (11/21/17): During the transition from British to American control, Detroit seemed a “mind-boggling morass of murky rules.” The Northwest Ordinance, which stated that “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude” shall exist in the territory, was adopted in 1787 but did not take effect until 1796—with the American occupation. By that point, Detroit’s enslaved population had reached a peak of 298 people.That review seems to say that the number peaked at 298, apparently in 1796. According to this Michigan site, the number began to drop after that. "Only 15 African Americans lived in Detroit in 1805, and it is unclear how many were slaves."
We can't vouch for the accuracy of that Michigan site. Professor Miles seems to have said that the number of enslaved people in Detroit peaked at 298.
As everyone has always known—as everyone has always known how to recite—that was 298 people too many. But stories of the evil of this system have long been well known in our world.
For reasons which may perhaps reflect somewhat poorly on our species, the stories of the 48,000 seem to excite a much smaller amount of interest. Within our deeply moral liberal world, the lives and interests of the 48,000 are relentlessly ignored.
Our world's indifference to these children could hardly be more clear. In our view, it's somewhat strange to denounce slaveholders so much while ignoring these modern-day children.
The 298 are the honored dead. The 48,000 are the living. We tend to weep for the smaller group, turn our backs on the massively larger.
Might this reflect our species' instincts? The way our species is wired?
Tomorrow: Some truly horrible data and facts concerning the 48,000